Somewhat Heartless, Somewhat Grown

September 2, 2011

There once lived a rat called Iphigenia. She was not good or kind, like some children, and she was not especially pretty. But Iphigenia was clever and knew to wear practical shoes, and sometimes her uncle let her ride on his shoulders, so life was finer than lace or sweet cake or the stars at night.

Iphigenia loved her uncle. She knew he was the sort of beast to tell stories about, and to be certain there were more stories of him than grains of sand on the southern plateau. In the fashion of a tale he was brave and gallant, and in the fashion of a tale his brother was not.

Iphigenia’s uncle led a horde, and he divided the spoils with this brother. Iphigenia’s uncle ruled fairly, and his brother gambled and drank. Iphigenia’s uncle was handsome and sweet, and his brother was brawny and boorish. And while the brother’s winnings kept her in fine silks and cozy blankets, she could never truly love him; he was not the one to teach her to navigate, or to sing her songs.

As any child of the Abbey knows, the horde will never win. This is a true thing, true as bees buzzing and apple-cores and your own secret heart.

Iphigenia’s uncle died. On that night, when fire and shouting and arrows rent the quiet of her dreams, the brother came to her. “Daughter,” he said, “you must be swift and silent. This is not our night to die. We are going as far north as north may go, where no beast will know our names.”

Iphigenia took her father’s paw, for what else could she have done?

Blood in the orchard, blood on his claws, blood wherever he looked no matter how he scrubbed it from his fur. It had been easy to bury Saskia in the cess; it had been easy to let Foweller and Noel run; it had been satisfying to lock Rigg away. But to sit now and watch the clouds made his gut ache.

Carter had given him something after the skirmish with Duster. The Abbot had raged and almost wept, but he could not draw even with Isidore. He had Tompkins’ death, and then the printer’s; Isidore upheld their bargain. Foweller walked free. Carter turned conciliatory, stroking Isidore’s burnt paw and calling him friend, and finally he presented his gift.

In the orchard, Isidore drew it from its wrappings. The sword did not look the way it had in Carter’s cellar. Now, by the harsh light of morning, he saw it was very old and battered where it had met the enemy’s blade. His stomach twisted. What had he done, to have this?

“Brother, brother,” the wind whispered. “Tell me your troubles.”

Isidore flinched. “Aloysius.”

The bat hung in Foweller’s pear tree. His wings unfurled like a sail. Isidore’s paw went to the sword, but Aloysius bore no weapon– he only landed before Isidore and bowed. “Will you not say? Will you unburden yourself, brother, brother? Tell me of Saskia.”

“I have done only what is just.”

“Justice, justice? Then dust and ashes as I am, allow me to speak before your mercy, mercy.”

“I have done only what was asked.”

“Then I ask, I ask your mercy and not the beast that scorns me, brother, brother– why have you done these things?”

Isidore trembled; Isidore choked on the stone in his throat. “I have the duty to rid the Abbey of corruption. I have no answers for you. You cannot understand me,” he said. “You cannot understand what I’ve seen or what I’ve done.”

Alo ducked his head in deference. “I am only a historian. There is much I do not understand. Shall we speak of history?”

“No. Leave this place.”

“Then I shall.” He spread his wings. “But brother, brother, when Veil Sixclaw poisoned Sister Myrtle– did the Order take vengeance upon him, or simply cast him away from this place of peace?”

“Poison of the mind is different from poison of the body.”

“Then, brother, brother, it’s good to know you’re willing to bear that weight.”

Before Isidore could do anything, before he could even step towards Aloysius, the bat had winged away. Isidore clutched the hilt of Martin’s sword. He swept an arc in the air, once, twice, then buried the blade in the earth.

So it was that Iphigenia and her father came to the northern coasts. Once a great fortress ruled there; then an ailing family of ferrets; then a princedom of merchants. Of these, the fox Tyrell was the greatest.

Her father joined his service. After seasons running from Painted Ones and toads and what had happened on the plateau, he dressed her in purple and red and gold. He served her tea in cups delicate as brittle leaves. He shod her with silk slippers, though she had always worn practical shoes and wept to surrender her last pair.

He did not speak with her, much; children and fathers have little in common, for there is always a river of age between them and not all beasts know how to ford it.

Her father was content to let her be, and this is his story now. For Tyrell, he did all that he had done in his brother’s service: gambled, drank, and fought.

Every beast in a tale desires something. As children desire freedom and crones desire beauty, Tyrell desired New Noonvale.

The thought of dinner sickened Isidore, but he attended. The smell of pottage and fish clung to him like a cloud of perfume. He took his seat at Carter’s side, and searched the hall for Foweller: there, yes, the otter strutted defiantly, and Noel and the Coffincreeper kit walked with him. He could forgive this. Foweller was safe enough to devour a chunk of almond-crusted trout without waiting for grace.

The schoolmistress waved at Carter for attention. “Father,” Redronnet said, “Father, some of my students tell me they have a song to sing. Will you allow it?”

“A song?” Carter clapped his paws. “Well, my children, by all means. I should love to hear it.”

A stoat and a gawky young squirrel leapt to attention. The squirrel had barely grown out of dibbunhood; his voice was half a squeal. “It’s my song, not Hagia’s. I wrote it and learnt it myself. I just want you to know. All right?”

“Harald, I never!” the stoat said. She tugged his sleeve. “I done it too, Father Abbot. If anything I’m the one learnt it to him. He ain’t had a thing to do with any of it.”

“Of course, of course,” Carter said. “But sing it and we shall credit you both.”

The pair began.

Cat in the cradle and mole in the ground,
Brothers of Redwall are dutifully bound,
By oath and by sword, by habit, by deed
By Abbot, by Martin, by rule and by creed
Cat in the cradle and mole in the ground,
Brothers of Redwall are dutifully bound
To make peace and keep it, sow peace and reap,
At morn upon waking til eve upon sleep
Govern and make graves, tend orchard and tomb–

Sister Redronnet interrupted. She yanked Hagia’s ear, and the stoat shrieked. “You stop this immediately.”

“I done it, I done it,” Hagia cried. “For Abbess Vodola and Daithi– ow!

Carter rose. “Let go of her. Now, Sister. To order, all of you.” He could not quiet the crowd, and so he shouted. “Order!”

He exhaled raggedly. “I had hoped never to say this.

“But it is clear we harbor a rebel element in the Abbey. For some time I have known of a plot by the murderer Julian Case, a plot to seize the Abbey by force. Children, he would use even children!

“Quiet. Order! It pains me to say it, but lockdown is not enough. I must enforce a curfew. And I would encourage you all to report suspicious behavior to me, directly. If anyone has tried to leave, or reach the outside, if anyone is somewhere they should not be– tell me.

“Quiet. Please. I want peace in this Abbey. Those who break the rule shall be dealt with accordingly. Sister Redronnet, I trust you can attend to young Hagia.”

Through all of this, Isidore stood by the Abbot. He kept his paws clenched tight, wringing the skirt of his habit, and he watched Foweller. The kit glared, though whether at him or Carter Isidore did not know. At dinner’s end, he reeled homewards as though drunk and finally, finally wept.

New Noonvale burned and the brother watched. He stood in the old archives, listening to paper crumble into ash. Jeweled covers lay at his feet like stones in a ruined foundation. He only nudged them aside.

Iphigenia was gone, fled on the eve of battle for reasons he could not know. She left a doll-shaped space in his life, this beautiful, delicate creature– left all that he had given her, or she had been stolen away, or she had disappeared to punish him.

He followed a strange set of tracks in the ash: ones that appeared, disappeared, appeared again as if their maker had leapt yards at a time. They led from the archives into an orchard; there the brother found papers, broken branches, and finally a sobbing, heaving little body draped over a pile of books.

“Please,” the bat said, “spare me. I am only a historian, my brother, brother; I ask your mercy. If I can I will repay it tenfold, tenfold.”

He let the bat go. He even gathered the books, though he could not read them. He walked by apple trees, through thickets of blackberry, past little gardens and the streamlets that fed them.

He came to rest in a grove full of hives, and there he thought what to do next.

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